Buried treasure: white asparagus

In Germany and the Netherlands, green asparagus plays second fiddle to the white kind.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Make mine white: Local white asparagus is celebrated in Schwetzingen, Germany.
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In Germany, white asparagus is a beloved culinary first crocus, its annual springtime arrival a cause for national rejoicing. In asparagus season – traditionally from late April to the end of June – most Germans will eat Spargel at least once a day, and restaurants serve it in many delicious forms – from soup to dessert.

During asparagus season, Spargelzeit, more than 70,000 tons of asparagus are consumed, virtually all of it white and most locally grown. Asparagus is cultivated in a number of places around the country, including Lower Saxony and Bavaria. But the general consensus is that the finest white asparagus comes from an area in Baden-Württemberg between Heidelberg and Mannheim known as the Asparagus Triangle, and centered on the aristocratic old town of Schwetzingen, which calls itself the Asparagus Capital of the World.

The soil in the area is what makes the difference. Light and sandy, it's ideal for mounding over asparagus beds to protect growing plants from direct exposure to the sun, which is what produces the chlorophyll that turns asparagus green. Green and white asparagus are genetically the same plant, but the white kind has a distinctive taste much appreciated by asparagus gourmets.

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"This is absolutely the best asparagus; there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world," says Hans Rockenwagner, a German-born and trained chef who now lives in Los Angeles. "Smooth and buttery with a deep, rich flavor, it's a real delicacy." White asparagus also has cultural significance, he adds. "Germans love the fact that this is their vegetable."

Asparagus has been cultivated in Schwetzingen for more than three centuries, dating back to when it was known as "the royal vegetable" and was a luxury only aristocrats such as princes could afford.

During the annual Spargelzeit today, what draws many visitors to the town is the opportunity to buy their favorite vegetable fresh from one of the many farm stands in Schlossplatz, the market square in front of the main gate of the castle.

Market squares in Germany are often adorned with bronze statues, usually of a famous local son, a military hero, or some former ruler. However, Schwetzingen's statue is unique. Called Die Spargelfrau (The Asparagus Woman), it depicts a typical farm wife standing behind a stall covered with asparagus.

German asparagus lovers are choosy and will often go from seller to seller in the market, searching for perfect spears – those that are pure white from stalk to tip. Ideally, white asparagus should also be round and plump – about an inch in diameter – and therefore easy to peel.

Unlike green asparagus, white asparagus always has to be peeled thoroughly to remove all the skin, otherwise it will be stringy when cooked. Most German families own a swivel vegetable peeler and also a deep pot in which the asparagus is cooked, tied in a bundle with the tips up and out of the water so they will be steamed rather than boiled.

Asparagus can also be cooked laying flat in a shallow pan. The recommended cooking time for white asparagus is about twice that for green asparagus, the length of time for both depending on how crunchy you like your asparagus.

Needless to say, visitors come to the Asparagus Triangle to eat asparagus as well as buy it, and the area's many chefs vie with one another to come up with new recipes and interesting variations on old ones.

In Chef Rockenwagner's opinion, the simplest asparagus dishes are often the best: "Serve asparagus just with mayonnaise or hollandaise sauce, ham, and new potatoes, and that's a good meal."

In Schwetzingen, the elegant dining room of the Hotel Adler Post, which has been in the Höfer family for six generations, is known for having the most extensive and imaginative asparagus menu. Entrees include asparagus with breast of quail in spinach with hollandaise sauce and salmon filet in asparagus stock with fresh morels. Among the dessert options is crème brûlée of asparagus with a cane sugar crust.

Brauhaus zum Ritter serves traditional asparagus dishes in an informal setting. Pazza's Garden, an Italian restaurant, is known for its white asparagus lasagna.

On the first weekend in May, Schwetzingen holds its Spargelfest, a sort of vegetarian Oktoberfest. Among other events, there is often an alfresco asparagus banquet in the magnificent garden of the elector's residence.

A well-marked, 25-mile-long scenic tourist route called the Asparagus Road winds through the triangle, connecting asparagus-producing towns and villages such as Ketsch, Hockenheim, Reilingen, Rastatt, and Karlsruhe.

Like Schwetzingen, these communities have festivals of their own that include asparagus markets and crowd-pleasing events such as asparagus peeling competitions. The world champion asparagus peeler, by the way, is a chef from Kiel in northern Germany named Helmut Zipner, who peeled a full ton of asparagus in 16 hours – a feat that earned him the nickname "The Asparagus Tarzan."

White asparagus with black forest ham

1 pound fresh white asparagus
1 large ripe avocado
1/2 cup oil-and-vinegar dressing
4 ripe plum tomatoes, peeled
4 large fresh basil leaves, shredded
8 thin slices Black Forest ham
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Trim the bases of the asparagus spears and peel the stalks with a vegetable peeler.

Bring a large pan of salted water to a boil and drop in the spears. Simmer for 3 minutes only.

While asparagus is cooking, fill a large bowl with ice water.

Using a large slotted spoon, carefully lift the cooked asparagus spears from the pan and place them in the ice water. Allow to stand for 5 minutes, then drain in a colander.

Slice the avocado and mix gently with a third of the dressing. Season well.

Thinly slice the tomatoes and season with salt. Allow to stand for 10 minutes. Drizzle with another third of the dressing and mix in the basil.

Arrange 2 slices of ham on each of four plates. Divide the asparagus, tomato, and avocado among the plates.

Drizzle the last of the dressing over the asparagus and scatter with the chives. Season with coarsely ground black pepper. Serves 4.

Source: German Agricultural Marketing Board.

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